The Evolution of Human Consciousness

Ever since the publication of The Origin of Species evolutionary scientists have been convinced that Darwin’s great picture of man’s physical descent needed to be completed by a corresponding account of the human mind. The task was seen to be enormous, and Darwin’s own contribution, The Expression of Emotion in Man and Animals, inspired a generation of evolutionary psychologists – Lloyd Morgan, romanes, Baldwin, William James – to make a start. But the positivism that set in after the First World War, by insisting on a materialist psychology that modelled itself on the physical sciences, put paid to the enterprise. And it was not taken up again until the 1950s when Julian Huxley, Piaget and others began to insist that, contrary to the prevailing interpretation of Darwinism, evolution was a directed affair: mental ability (perception, awareness, intelligence and ultimately consciousness) must, they argued, be seen as the result of a necessary evolutionary progression. The mind was, in Piaget’s phrase, a cognitive organ, whose function was to increase a creature’s independence from control over its environment.

However, for all the simplest creatures, what constitutes “environment” cannot be reduced to a description of physical surroundings. Organisms behave in relation to each other, and the nature of their environments is inseparable from the effects of such interaction. In short, evolution has to explain the emergence of social behavior.

Precisely this was until recently the major stumbling-block for ethologists. How can a Darwinian theory which takes the individual organism selfishly maximizing its own fitness as the unit of natural selection explain the apparently unselfish behavior – cooperation, mutual help, self-sacrifice, and so on – which underpin social life? How does society emerge from biology?

It was around answers to this question that the science of socio-biology crystalized in 1975. The new science’s approach to human nature and society rests on consideration of two mechanisms of population genetics: kin selection and reciprocal altruism. The first explains how nepotism and certain kinds of self-denial make evolutionary sense: once it is observed that an individual’s genes are not unique, but shared in varying degrees with all its relatives, then what appears as altruistic self-sacrifice – the rearing of a relative’s children – can in fact be a contribution to the survival of the individual considered as a set of genes. In appropriate circumstances, safeguarding the genes of three siblings makes for a greater degree of fitness than producing two children. The second explains how certain kinds of mutual assistance and acts of self-negation between genetically unrelated individuals can – provided such patterns of reciprocation are predictable – be of genetic benefit to both parties.

The first half of The Evolution of Human Consciousness is an authoritative and clear outline of how these mechanisms can be appealed to in an account of the genetic basis of human social behavior. Thus we are given an ethological account of the behavioural characteristics of hunting hominids, the growth of language and intelligence through systems of exchange and reciprocation, the effects of protracted infant rearing, the ecology of hunter-gatherers, tribes, and chiefdoms and the emergence of civilization. John Crook places particular emphasis on the phenomenon of cheating – the principal danger to the workings of reciprocal altruism. And he claims for it a central role in the evolution of intelligence: reciprocators spotting would-be cheaters and cheaters outwitting their spotters engaged in a dialectic of increasing transactional smartness that give rise to the human conceptualization of “self” and “other”, and led to “the self-process as a human universe”, which is institutionalized in partnerships and the systems of friendship, sympathy, and moral rules that anthropologists have found in all human cultures.

Having sociobiologized the self in this way Crook feels free in the rest of his book to embrace, with mounting enthusiasm, what he calls the “new dialectical psychology”. By which he means all the “person-based” account of the psyche to be found in practice of encounter groups, de-alienation techniques, counseling, meditation, self-actualization therapy, life-script therapy, open-programme growth, deep play, ego transcendence, Zen ritual, Transcendental Meditation and finally the “Buddist model of mind” with its four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path through craving and illusion until the cycle of “dependent origination” is broken and true enlightenment is reached. The book ends with a quotation from Krishnamurti celebrating the unfragmented awareness of the “whole” to be found when the brain is passive and its thoughts completely stilled.

Crook is an ethologist in the psychology department of the University of Bristol who has been interested in Buddhism since the 1950s. He started the first encounter group in Bristol and is now involved in setting up a Zen retreat suitable for Westerners. It seems reasonable to assume that the structure of his book is intended to convert its readers to the rightmindedness of Buddhism. Somehow the sociobiological picture of human nature is supposed to authenticate – via a kind of justification of faith by evolutionary science – the dialectical psychology of personal happiness that leads to Buddha.

Why? Not only Why believe in the spiritual and ethical values of Buddha? (though the book asks you to ask that), but also Why is it necessary to build such values on the back of an ethological description of the human psyche? Part of the answer is surely Crook’s desire to be a whole person whose scientific work and religious devotions are of a piece. But presumably the book is committed to some less personal implication from sociobiology to meditational consciousness. An implication that is supposed to dissolve “the dichotomy between biology and the metaphysics of awareness”. Leaving aside a certain incoherence in asking Western science to invert its method and support rather than unmask systems of metaphysics, what sort of awareness are we being offered?

Two sorts. There is the babble of person-based relationship-oriented psycho-therapies from California promoting brands of facile and narcissistic happiness. Or there is the Tantric road to meditation, Zen exercises, and accepting silence of Buddha. Crook is enthusiastic about the first and deeply committed to the second. Both, without doubt, provide many, whose needs are sore, with spiritual balm. The first turns people into happiness machines, the second turns them into monks. Surely the whole business of being conscious is more fraught and interesting than that? The noisy, intrusive scribbles or art, writing, music, history, culture, and all the other artifacts of consciousness disappear on the way to the Higher Zen.

All this seems a long way from population genetics. And, to remember the earlier question, What is Crook arguing to be the connection between evolution and meditation?

It is not at all clear. Much of the second half of his book is written in computerized socio-psycho-talk: The objective self-conscious awareness may be momentary or prolonged or lie below the current of social interacting and monitoring performance. In all cases, however, the taking of one’s own performance into account appears to be functionally projective. That is to say, it facilitates shifts in responding that appear to adapt the individual’s behavior more effectively to ongoing social transactions…

From prose like that, escape into silence seems a sane option. Clearly there is no need to accept the framework of a book which discusses human consciousness in the absence of its characteristic artifacts. And even if they did not create consciousness, the noisy intrusions of human culture certainly provide the signs through which it is experienced. Buddha, evidently, has no use for signs.

TLS December 12, 1980

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